Module Study, Language as a Political Instrument, Morgan Pinder
Alcohol, Football and Certainty; Assault Coverage in a Regional Area
Analysis of the top 96 search hits of articles pertaining to assault of a sexual and non-sexual nature, filed within the past 2 years, appearing on the online version of Fairfax regional newspaper; The Border Mail. Search feature is orientated toward keyword density and the key words used were “assault” and “sexual assault”.
This research is endeavouring to build a picture of how the paper treats the victim and accused within coverage of an incident through an adapted version of the “agent, process, goal” approach to breaking down coverage of violent crimes (Clark 1992). This analysis is also designed to produce an accurate gauge of whether the presumption of innocence is followed prior to conviction and whether the court’s decision is accepted post-conviction, particularly in relation to differing trends when comparing sexual and non-sexual assault victims.
Overly Negative Naming of Victim or Accused
The aim in using naming analysis was to determine any bias in displayed in naming choices made by the paper.
In the case of sexual assault accused there were a few cases of negative naming and in these cases accused were often depicted as monstrous and animalistic, with such terms as “vile” and “horrifying” used to describe their actions, particularly in relation to crimes involving children or seemingly random attacks.
Non-sexual assault accused were negatively named in 18 out of 49 cases, with some of the negative elements relating to geographic location, that is to say that certain suburbs of the local area having a bad reputation were mentioned as a key identifier to give the accused the weight of negative generalisations that come with association with the suburb, in this case the suburb of Lavington. Lavington has a lower socio-economic standing than much of the Albury Wodonga area (Baum, 2009) and generalisations are often made based on someone’s association with the suburb. Non-sexual assault victims were not named negatively in any of the stories examined, with the exception of the unnecessary inclusion of a victim’s family stated as living in Lavington (article: ‘You’re dead’ – Footballer accused of threatening, assaulting girlfriend).
Overly Positive Naming of Victim or Accused
This was analysed to determine any positive bias when naming the victim or accused in coverage of an assault. This was analysed in the same way as with the negative naming analysis.
Non-sexual and sexual assault victims, if they were identified in a positive manner, tended to be identified sympathetically, particularly in relation to women with children. On a few occasions the victim was identified as being intrinsically of value in the community. Non-sexual assault accused were only named positively if the crime took place in what could be considered to be part of their role as a respectable member of society, for instance a police officer is given mitigating circumstances for an assault as the victim was allegedly publically urinating (article: Bond for cop over pub biffo) and the paper adopts a position of outrage when a footballer is convicted of assault on the football field (article: Collie Eagles player Matthew Blackford found guilty of on-field assault).
44548613, Module Study, Language as a Political Instrument, Morgan Pinder
In the case of sexual assault the accused was only named positively if they were seen to be of some standing in the community.
Accused is not Given Agency
Using the “agent process goal” model of identifying the agency of a reported incident, each article was examined to determine whether at any stage direct agency was attributed to the accused.
In sexual assault reporting where the accused was able to be identified they were given agency in most cases, but there were 5 exceptions in which the accused was portrayed as being in a sense the victim of an accusation. In most cases non-sexual assault accused were attributed direct agency with 3 exceptions, two of which are related to on field football assaults. When analysed individually headlines, as opposed to full articles, show that agency was more likely to be attributed to the accused in non-sexual assault. The full article and headline analysis indicates that there may be a higher incidence of victim blaming in sexual assault cases, however with such a small margin of difference in incidences a larger sample study would be needed to determine this with more certainty.
Victim is cast as agent
Using the “agent process goal” model of identifying the agency of a reported incident, each article was examined to determine whether at any stage direct agency was attributed to the victim.
Non-sexual assault victims were not cast as the agent in any of the stories examined and in the case of sexual assault victims only one was implied as being the agent, this was not a local case (article: Mormon Tourist Accuses Man of Assault) and the victim was named in such a way as to discredit her claims, and she is the accuser rather than victim in this story.
Mitigating circumstances or attempts to justify crime
When analysing the articles collected any attempts to justify the crime that were given a credible position by the newspaper were documented to determine whether the assault was considered to be a legitimate crime or its impact was downplayed due to the circumstances surrounding it.
In the case of sexual assault accused, most mitigating circumstances were offered by the accused or defence attorneys, mainly surrounding issues of consent, depicting the victim as culpable or the mental health of the accused, painting the accused as tortured. The only mitigating circumstances that were included for non-sexual assaults were in connection with prior relationships, mental health or in three separate cases the location of the incident. In the 3 attempts to justify the crime by location 2 of these took place on a football field and 1 in a school yard, this incident is downplayed as a “school yard scrap” (article: School yard assault in police hands).
Criminalising accused prior to trial
In this section of the analysis the absence of words of uncertainty (alleged, accused) prior to trial were noted, and the inclusion of previous incidents in reports that were used to increase the impact of the incident that is the focus of the article, making the audience see the incident as part of an ongoing pattern. In this regard there was very little difference between the criminalisation of accused non-sexual and sexual assault perpetrators, with the newspaper neglecting to express doubt to at least 50% of pre-trial cases. This “trial by media” approach (Waterhouse-Watson, 2013) to documenting assault cases fits in with the surprising incidence of specific information being divulged about accused addresses and the paper’s reputation for “championing” causes.
This involved re-reading the articles to record what common reoccurring themes where documented throughout assault coverage as a whole. These a preoccupations that indicate a potential agenda on the part of the newspaper, or the perceived views of the intended reader. The key preoccupations pertaining to non-sexual assault are alcohol and football. The alcohol theme is typically accompanied by a call to arms for tougher licensing laws and/or a list of other recent or geographically close incidents. The football theme is primarily touched on presumably because of the relative familiarity of the football players, with many pictures included as part of the coverage and the popularity of such stories in a regional area in which football is very popular. When race was touched upon it was in relation to Aboriginal football players.
In the case of sexual assault accused the emphasis was on the relationship to the accused rather than the surrounding context. The terms stranger and random appear several times despite sexual assault victims usually being assaulted by someone they know, suggesting a preoccupation with these types of crime, often emphasising the “monstrous” nature of the crime, portraying the accused as beasts as in Clarke 1992.
Sexual assault coverage tends to be lengthier with a higher instance of repeat stories, with the exception of non-sexual assault coverage relating to football. The most lengthy sexual assault coverage was reserved for incidents where the victim was a teenager and deceased.
Overly Specific identifiers
Identifiers such as specific street addresses were documented to determine how ready the newspaper is to condemn and single out an accused perpetrator of assault. Using the address of an accused is a choice that is made by The Bordermail in relation to each story where the address is available to them, so the stories where they are included were noted. In 5 cases non-sexual assault accused had the street name and suburb at which they lived disclosed, in most of these cases the victims were high profile members of the community. The paper was far less likely to disclose the street address of a person accused with sexual assault with only one clear incidence of this happening within the sample. Perhaps this lower rate is because of the emotive nature of sexual assault, or perhaps the effects of being directly implicated in a sexual assault are considered to be more severe than non-sexual assault.
In relation to sexual assault coverage the preoccupation was with the perceived monstrosity and randomness of some attacks, with greater attention paid to those assaults that were perpetrated by a stranger. The discomfort of the attacker being a person known to the victim in the case of sexual assault is such that The Border Mail does not dwell on the incident, unless there is a way to dehumanise the accused. With the heightened awareness of domestic violence due to crimes subsequent to the news period analysed I expect that the results would be somewhat different in this regard. The paper, however, seems to be quite willing to condemn those accused of non-sexual assault, especially those crimes that are linked to antisocial behaviour (drinking alcohol) and high profile perpetrators, such as footballers. The preoccupation with football seems to imply that if a player assaults someone on field then the victim is as much to blame as the accused, but if the player takes that aggression off-field then it is unwarranted and reported in detail as a dramatic fall from grace. The tone of the coverage of non-sexual assault seems to be a matter of timing and location, whereas the tone of sexual assault reporting seems to be determined by the relationship between the accused and victim, and the perceived worth of both parties to the greater community.
Baum, S., & Mitchell, W. (2009). Red alert suburbs: An employment vulnerability index for Australia’s major urban regions. Centre of Full employment and Equity, University of NSW, Newcastle.
Bordermail.com.au, (2015). Albury-Wodonga News, sport and weather | The Border Mail. Retrieved 10 May 2015 to 22 May 2015, from http://www.bordermail.com.au/
Clark, K. (1992). The linguistics of blame: representations of women in The Sun’s reporting of crimes of sexual violence. Language, text and context: Essays in stylistics, 208-24.
Ehrlich, S. (1999). Communities of practice, gender, and the representation of sexual assault. Language in Society, 28(02), 239-256.
Hogan, T., Hess, R., Wedgwood, N., Warren, I., & Nicholson, M. (2005). Women and Australian Rules Football: An Annotated Bibliography. Football Studies, 8(2), 77-88.
Lukin, A., Butt, D., & Matthiessen, C. (2004). Reporting war: Grammar as’ covert operation’. Pacific Journalism Review, 10(1), 58.
O’Hara, S. (2012). Monsters, playboys, virgins and whores: Rape myths in the news media’s coverage of sexual violence. Language and literature, 21(3), 247-259.
Stat.abs.gov.au,. (2015). Albury (C) : Region Data Summary. Retrieved 16 May 2015, from http://stat.abs.gov.au/itt/r.jsp?RegionSummary®ion=10050&dataset=ABS_NRP9_LGA&geoconcept=REGION&datasetASGS=ABS_NRP9_ASGS&datasetLGA=ABS_NRP9_LGA®ionLGA=REGION®ionASGS=REGION
Waterhouse-Watson, D. (2013). Athletes, Sexual Assault, and” trials by Media”: Narrative Immunity. Routledge.